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The performance sportswear market is valued at $78 billion and set to become one of the fastest-growing product categories of the decade. Athleisure continues to take over, stealing market share from non-athletic apparel in the process. Which is to say, it makes sense that companies that make clothing — classic, traditional clothing — are peering around the corner at sportswear companies and saying “Hey, we want a piece of that.”
Gant is one of those companies; it even brought on a former Adidas exec as its CEO. That’s resulted in ideas like the Tech Prep collection, which just looks like a line of button-up shirts, but hidden in the threads is a composition of polyester and cotton that stretches, wicks moisture, and apparently doesn’t wrinkle. The concept of normal clothing spliced with performance wear has also caught on at Under Armour, Calvin Klein, and Kenneth Cole, while brands like Ministry of Supply, State & Liberty, Mizzen+Main, and several others have centered their entire businesses around it.
But I, for one, remain unconvinced that I need these shirts anywhere near my body, and the time has come for me to ask the tough questions.
Why do we need performance-enhanced clothes?
As Brian Grevy, Gant’s CMO and another former Adidas staffer, explains, “The consumer has voted that comfortable clothing and the benefits it gives you is what they want.”
Okay, but why exactly do we need this kind of clothing?
The argument goes that our modern, technologically-advanced lives necessitate modern, technologically-advanced clothes. For example, Mizzen + Main founder Kevin Lavelle argues that there are moments you need moisture wicking: riding the subway in the summer, rushing to a meeting, making a stressful presentation. This is also how Gant positions its Tech Prep shirts. A campaign for the collection featured people in “distressing” everyday situations, like standing in a cramped elevator, and ended with the tagline “Never Not Comfortable.” It’s white-collar athleisure.
Can you give me a grosser example?
“When you're giving a presentation in these shirts, you're not showing your sweaty armpits,” Lavelle says. “It's disgusting to describe, but you're not showing the back sweat—”
That’s e-fucking-nough. What else do these shirts do?
Mizzen + Main has made it a point to work with athletes because its fabric’s four-way stretch means massive humans can wear shirts right off the rack rather than getting them custom-fit. Grevy says Gant’s fabric blend means that the shirts don’t require dry cleaning and don’t come out of the washing machine looking like a Shar-Pei. Gant also released a commuter collection that uses the Tech Prep technology, meant for folks who bike to work.
But don’t they look like giant polyester ponchos?
When I brought these shirts up to Eater features editor and fellow shirt-wearer Matt Buchanan, he put it bluntly: “Oh, no, ew. If I'm going to wear a dress shirt, I want it to be, like, nice.” (His emphasis, not mine.) But Lavelle wore a Mizzen+Main shirt under a tie and jacket when we met, and I didn’t confuse it for a Hefty product. You also don’t need to look hard to find converts online. Reddit commenters throw around words like “magnificent” and “best dress shirt I’ve ever worn,” though there is some negative feedback relating to trash baginess, drape, and odor.
How else does the sportswear industry fit in here?
“There's one thing the sporting industry is really good at, and it's talking about product benefits,” says Grevy. You can tool around with patterns and prints as much as you want, but preferences for those change with the wind and from customer to customer.”
When you design a print, you have to hope it catches on; when you create shirts with special technology, you’re banking on something that will be of tangible benefit to a customer. And just like a company like Nike works to develop technology then iterates on top of it a thousand times over — see: Air — Gant and the rest of the crowd hopes to do the same with shirts.